The Athens-Clarke County Commission unanimously approved an emergency measure Thursday night requiring residents to stay in their homes with some exceptions, hoping to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases spread in the county.
They also voted to spend at least $3 million to somewhat alleviate the economic impact of closing many businesses to the public, which will throw an untold number of residents out of work at least until Apr. 7, when the "shelter in place" policy expires.
But the public health threat of coronavirus was deemed so serious that it justified harsher measures to ensure people are practicing social distancing whenever possible.
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of cases this week, and we expect that to increase exponentially," Lewis Earnest, an emergency room doctor at St. Mary's Hospital, told commissioners.
Athens has a high population of people who are vulnerable to COVID-19, according to Grace Bagwell Adams, a professor at the UGA College of Public Health. Almost a fifth lack health insurance, and over 60% of Athens households have at least one person who has a chronic medical condition, is over age 65 or both. In addition, Athens has a shortage of health care professionals. All this points to a health care system that could easily be overwhelmed.
“We have an astounding percentage of Athens-Clarke County residents who only have access to health care through the emergency room," Adams said.
The shelter-in-place policy includes a number of exceptions, such as grocery shopping, medical trips, recreation and going to work, and allows essential businesses like doctor's offices, pharmacies, grocery stores and a host of others to remain open while requiring others to close to the public. Restaurants can stay open, but are only allowed to serve food for take-out and delivery.
“The economic impact is going to be devastating,” Commissioner Melissa Link said.
Commissioner Tim Denson added an amendment that will devote the remaining $3 million from the county's "prosperity package," passed as part of the 2020 budget, to financial assistance for laid-off workers, small businesses and nonprofits. Commissioners also said they would look for additional funds in the current budget and the upcoming fiscal 2021 budget, as well as state and federal relief.
“It’s not going to go very far, unfortunately, but we’re doing what we can,” Commissioner Jerry NeSmith said.
Other changes include tweaks to broaden the definition of who residents are allowed to visit to include non-family members, proposed by Link, and clarifications to enforcement proposed by Commissioner Mariah Parker.
No one will be cited or arrested for violating the ordinance, said Mayor Kelly Girtz. Instead, police will educate citizens and urge them to disperse if they gather in groups larger than 10, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Several commissioners had reservations, but ultimately all of them voted for the mandate.
“I’d rather be accused of overreacting then not doing enough,” Commissioner Mike Hamby said.
In addition, public health officials briefed commissioners on progress with testing and educational efforts. Posters on hygiene and social distance will be given to area businesses within the next few days, and pamphlets will be distributed by police and with school lunches.
Although there is still a shortage of swabs, the Northeast Health District is currently conducting 20–25 coronavirus tests per day, focusing on the elderly and otherwise at-risk. Piedmont Athens Regional has a mobile testing site, but people must be pre-screened by calling 1-866-460-1119 before receiving a test. Others should reach out to their primary care physician.
This post has been updated to correct Grace Bagwell Adams' title.